The Rockaway Irregular
By Stuart Mirsky
Rockaway City Redux
Since I wrote in this column about the Rockaway City initiative being spearheaded by John Baxter and the Independence Party about a month or so back, there appears to have actually been some movement on this front. For those who missed it, John found an old bit of state legislation from the period between 1915 and 1917 when reformist John Purroy Mitchel, the anti-Tammany Hall candidate who briefly won a single term as New York City mayor back then, was in office. (Mitchel Field on Long Island is named after this guy who was known, in his time, as the Boy Mayor of New York because of his youth and brashness; he died in a World War I airplane accident during a training exercise after he lost his bid for a second term.)
As John tells it, Mayor Mitchel was engaged in a pitched battle with the Tammany bosses over his reformist agenda and Rockaway was one of the plums. This all took place beginning in 1914 when Mitchel entered office, about sixteen years after the consolidation of the various outlying townships and villages with Manhattan and Brooklyn to create the City of Greater New York. It seems that many of the residents of the Rockaways at that time felt they had been railroaded into the merger with New York City and wanted out. Mitchel's accession to the mayoralty coincided with the movement to disgorge Rockaway from the city that had swallowed it.
According to a Resolution adopted by the Civic Federation of the Rockaways around 1914, Rockaway was then paying close to a million dollars in annual taxes to City Hall . . . but only getting back about 75 percent of that in actual services. Despite this apparent underspending, when the Civic Federation compared what was being purchased for Rockaway to what the town of Utica in upstate New York was getting for the equivalent amount of dollars (Utica was then considered roughly comparable in population and square miles to Rockaway), they concluded that Rockaway, even at the 75 percent return ratio, was not getting as much per dollar spent as Utica was! The Civic Federation reported a litany of deficiencies in services including inadequate infrastructure (roads, water, sewage, lighting, parks and boardwalks), poor street sanitation and refuse disposal, and difficult-to-obtain permits for construction and other matters. Sound familiar?
This sense of being short-changed resulted in the movement to break Rockaway off from Greater New York and re-establish it as a separate municipality dedicated to the development of its beachfront for recreational purposes. The Rockaway town fathers felt inadequately represented and serviced by the City of New York and believed that Rockaway could do better managing its own affairs and using every dollar it generated as it saw fit, rather than remitting these funds to a distant and apparently disinterested City Hall in order to get back only three quarters of what was paid!
They took this pretty far it seems, as the bill to separate Rockaway into a freestanding municipality passed the State Assembly and the State Senate in 1915 and again in 1917 (after apparently being initially rejected by Mayor Mitchel in 1915). A "home rule" provision seems to have given New York City's mayor "veto" power over state legislation affecting the city even though the legislature was clearly empowered to establish separate municipalities elsewhere in the state. Thus, actual implementation of the plan may have depended on Mayor Mitchel's agreement to the secession. But that was the big question in 1917: Would the mayor, fighting for his political life, sign off on it?
Interestingly, John notes that his research so far has been unable to turn up a definitive record that Mayor Mitchel actually exercised his power to outright reject the legislation. There is indication that Mitchel returned the 1915 bills to the state legislature as "not approved" but as late as April 6, 1917 the bill was still alive and kicking since John found a letter from Thomas A. McWhinney, who appears to have been the bill's sponsor in the Assembly, to Mayor Mitchel, seeking the mayor's agreement to certain alterations in the "financial provision" in order to get him to accept the amended legislation. There is no record, so far, of Mitchel's response. It was the final year of his mayoralty and he was in a tough, and ultimately, losing battle for a second term.
It looks like the residents of Rockaway may have been convinced by the electoral results that things would get better under the new administration and ceased to press for separation. But John notes that if Mitchel never formally rejected the bill in its final incarnation, it may still be on the books. That means that Rockaway may officially still have a stand-alone city charter!
John showed me the charter itself and it's quite interesting. It lays out a proposed city government for Rockaway along with various parameters for governing, including a 2 percent ceiling on real estate taxes! It also calls for the establishment of a Rockaway City Council and election of a mayor, followed by a 90-day period to tease out the various interlocking financial and administrative functions, along with municipal assets, that New York City now controls for Rockaway, all preparatory to completing the breakaway.
The question, of course, is would a stand-alone municipality in Rockaway be feasible in today's world? We have now been integrated in Greater New York for over a century so would we even know how to govern ourselves and could a self-governing Rockaway City operate effectively enough to improve conditions out here on the relatively thin tax base we have?
Well, one way around this is to encourage the redevelopment of Rockaway into a thriving recreational community with the potential to draw people and dollars in the warmer months. Under the present regime it is certainly clear that the opposite has occurred as our once-vibrant beachfront community has slid inexorably downhill. A serious focus on developing our beaches alone could have a very significant impact on the new city's tax base and revenue potential, benefiting both those in need of jobs and making an independent Rockaway City economically viable.
So John's big question is: Are we getting our fair share today, in light of all the deterioration we see around us and the slowness of the city's responses to our needs? He notes that, while specifics may have changed over the past hundred years, Rockaway's grievances against City Hall haven't really altered all that much since the Civic Federation drafted its resolution calling for secession from a city they never wanted to join back in 1914. John says he's continuing his research into this and setting up an ad hoc committee to review Rockaway's options in light of the city charter the state granted it back in 1915 . . . and again in 1917. He's invited me to sit in and I've agreed. There are some very interesting possibilities here and we owe it to ourselves to see where they lead.
Stuart W. Mirsky is a long time Rockawayite who recently retired from city government and is now at work on his second novel.